Most people are never taught how to find a job. Which is odd because it’s increasingly an essential skill, which you will have to use several times (at least) over a career; and it’s also a fairly straight-forward process – albeit hard work.
I intend in this section to set out a job hunting method that I was taught in 1997 when I used the services of an excellent outplacement consultant. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember his name but I’ll call him John. Most of what I describe was his method, though I have since added on some research techniques based on my own experience from the Executive Search research process.
At that time, I had left the Diplomatic Service to start up a new company with a friend. Unfortunately, I resigned as planned but he chickened out, leaving me unemployed in a market downturn. 1997 was a bad year, being the start what is now known in the City as ‘the Asian Crisis’, and was swiftly followed by ‘the Russian Crisis’ in 1998, so it wasn’t the easiest time to find a job. The Foreign Office kindly agreed to pay for an outplacement service – which comprised about 6 one-to-one sessions with a career adviser. My key problem was that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I had found myself unemployed by accident and, having been expecting to set up an exciting new venture with my (ex)-mate, I had made no other plans.
Not to worry, said John, here’s a plan:
- Step one is: get a better idea of what you are good at. He recommended I read What Color is your Parachute and, crucially, that I complete the workbook in Chapter 5 of the book, which we then discussed to see if it highlighted anything obvious;
- Step two is: without getting too hung up about it, choose three jobs which you think you might like to do, and then start researching all three of them at once to find out more about what they involve. I picked Political Lobbying/PR, Something in the City (possibly being an analyst or a broker), and Headhunting (you can probably guess how this ends..);
- Step three is: find out all about the job’s Sector, and the companies which operate in them, and try to rank those companies in an order of preference (ie. the ones you would most like to join, and the ones you probably would prefer not to work for). Now try to identify the most senior business manager in the department you would like to join (it might be the division or team head, or the Chief Executive – but not the HR manager);
- Step four is: rack your brains to see if there is anyone you know who either works in those sectors/jobs, or who knows someone who does; and then ask them if they will meet you to help you with information about the job and its requirements. Crucially, you should not try to arrange any job interviews – these are information-only meetings, as you are not yet ready to interview. When you meet them, you should ask what are the key skills required for the job; that is: what do they look for when they interview people. But, you should also ask them about trends in the overall sector. What are the key challenges: is the sector growing, shrinking or stable? Is it fairly stable or changing rapidly? What are the key opportunities and threats? And then, you should ask them about the companies you have researched. Who do they see as the strongest in the sector? Who are the rising stars? If they didn’t work for their current firm, which other firms would they wish to work for, and why? Who are the key personalities, etc. The point of this meeting is that an insider is telling you what you need to know to sound like an insider yourself; and it’s the sort of information you just can’t get from researching the internet of directories. If you don’t know anyone from the sector, then you can manufacture your own information ‘sources’, in the same way that headhunters do, which I cover in detail in Step Three: Research, Research, Research;
- Step five is: once you feel you are up to speed on the key sector issues, start writing to the ‘bottom 10’ companies on your list – the ones you don’t really want to work for. These are the ones you are going to practice on. The idea being that, if you mess it up, it doesn’t really matter as you didn’t want to work for them anyway, but by the time you work your way through to the ones you do want to work for, you should be more expert and polished. You should write the first 10 companies a covering letter in which you set out some of your knowledge about the sector and the company to which you are writing. John insisted that each letter concluded with the specific phrase: ‘I will call you in three days to see if you, or one of your colleagues, would be interested in having a brief exploratory meeting’;
- Step six is: three days later, you should call whomever you wrote to. If they are senior, chances are you will only get as far as their secretary/PA. Check to see if they have got the letter. If not, offer to resend. If they have got the letter, they will probably say something like: ‘Yes but I’m afraid we have no plans for hiring at the moment’. If so, then you say that you perfectly understand, but ask if they or one of their colleagues would be prepared to help you by meeting you for 20 minutes only, simply to give you some advice and information about the sector and share their expertise (you can find a suggested script in step six). The point about this is you are not asking for a job interview, but instead asking for help, and asking for expertise (both of which most people like to give if they can). I found about 2 or 3 in 5 people said yes to this request, though probably 19 in 20 said no to the initial request for an exploratory meeting on the grounds that they were not hiring. Apart from giving you more information, and helping you sound even more like an insider the benefit of having these meetings is that i) even if they are not hiring, they might recommend you to a mate who is hiring; ii) when you do finally get that rare interview, you will be well-practiced in meeting people, and so hopefully less nervous; and iii) when the person you finally get a real interview with asks ‘who else have you met?’ instead of saying ‘you’re the first one’, and looking like a saddo Johnny no-mates, you can truthfully reel off a list of their competitors whom you have met, which makes you look hugely in demand and therefore much more attractive as a candidate (‘if all my competitors have met him, he’s obviously pretty good, so I had better snap him up quickly..’);
- Step seven is: keep repeating steps 5 and 6 with the next 10 companies in this sector until you have run out of companies to call. Once you have done that, you will either have i) decided that in fact you don’t like the sound of that job, and don’t really want to work in that area (as I found for Political Lobbying); ii) found that no one will give you a job at this time (as I found with City jobs, which were not hiring at that time); or iii) someone will have interviewed you and offered you a job (which I found was the case for Headhunting).
It took me just under three months from first meeting John to accepting a job offer, and I received three job offers in total, two of which I turned down. In retrospect, I think I should have taken longer to look at more sectors. Having dismissed Political Lobbying and been unable to get a job in the City as a broker or analyst, I probably should have replaced those two sectors with two new ones to investigate, rather than just let headhunting become the default final choice.
Or else, I could have hung on to see if the hiring market in the City picked up (which it did), and continued networking until I managed to break in. It’s important to bear in mind that any job hunt is simply a snapshot of the market at that time. You might have looked for a job in the City in January 2009, and found nothing. Yet, if you tried again in July 2009, you may well have been hired. That was simply because most firms imposed a hiring freeze right after the crash and then, when quantitative easing seemed to have avoided disaster, a lot of firms went on a massive hiring spree to re-hire the people that had sacked 12 months earlier. So I now understand that it’s important not to get disheartened just because everyone says ‘no’ right now. If you really want to do that job, it’s always worth hanging in there and re-trying in 6 months to see if the hiring market has picked up.
So…if you are serious about trying to find a job, you can now go to Step 1 – Know Thyself